European fighters with ISIS, and the threat they pose

European fighters with ISIS, and the threat they pose
Injured people are seen at the scene of explosions claime by ISIS at Zaventem airport near Brussels, Belgium, March 22, 2016

Many European countries have contributed thousands of fighters to Islamic State group (ISIS), who became prominent members in the group and started going back to Europe and planning terror attacks there.

originated as Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad in 1999, which pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda and participated in the Iraqi insurgency following the March 2003 invasion of Iraq by Western forces. The group first proclaimed itself a worldwide caliphate and began referring to itself as Islamic State or ISIS in June 2014. As a caliphate, it claims religious, political and military authority over all Muslims worldwide.

Between 27,000 and 31,000 people have traveled to Syria and Iraq to join the Islamic State and other groups in the region.

French, German and British citizens constitute the majority of the European foreign fighters that joined the ranks of Islamic State

France is the primary country of origin for the people who left to fight for the Islamic State terrorist group in the Middle East, as more than 900 its citizens traveled to Syria and Iraq to join the extremists, a research conducted by the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT) and published on April 1 says.

The report also adds that the “overall number of radicalized French nationals or residents involved in jihadist networks but not necessarily having traveled to Syria [and] Iraq is estimated to be close to 2000.”

In absolute terms, France is closely followed by Germany and the UK which both also contributed large numbers of ISIS foreign fighters. According to different estimates presented in the ICCT research, 720-760 Germans and 700-760 Brits left their countries to join the ranks of extremists.

At the same time, Belgium contributed the highest number of European ISIS fighters per capita, as the proportion of people that left the country for Syria and Iraq amounts to some 41 fighter per million while the total number of ISIS fighters of Belgian origin has reached 516. In per capita terms, it is followed by Austria and Sweden, which contributed 300 foreign fighters each.

ISIS attacks the heart of Europe by its own citizens

According to the research, almost 4,300 foreign fighters from the EU joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq and about 30 percent of them already returned to their home countries. Some 14 percent of such fighters have been confirmed dead.

The returning people resemble a major threat according to European diplomats. These people have been trained by ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and returned to recruit more fighters or to plan terror attacks in Europe.

Many ISIS-linked terror attacks were conducted in Europe in the past two years, and the most deadly ones were made by Europe’s own citizens’ hands.

On Nov. 13, 2015, three teams of ISIS militants conducted Europe’s deadliest terror attack in over a decade in Paris. First, three suicide bombers detonated themselves near the Stade de France during an international friendly soccer match between France and Germany, killing a passerby. At around the same time, a team of gunmen wearing suicide vests assaulted restaurants and bars in a popular nightlife district, murdering dozens. In the deadliest attack of the night, a third team shot up the Bataclan music hall during a crowded rock concert, before blowing themselves up. Eighty-nine people were killed.

Following the November 2015 terror attacks in Paris, ISIS again struck in the heart of Europe with a series of attacks in Belgium’s capital of Brussels.

Suicide attacks on the Brussels airport and subway killed 32 people and injured hundreds. The perpetrators have been closely linked to the group that carried out attacks in Paris. The Islamic State group took the credit for the Brussels attacks and threatened other countries taking part in the anti-ISIS coalition.

On July 14, 2016, A man driving a truck, reportedly a French citizen of Tunisian origin, ploughed into a crowd that was celebrating Bastille Day in Nice along the picturesque French Riviera, killing at least 84 and injuring hundred others. ISIS claimed the attack.

CCTV image from the Brussels Airport surveillance cameras shows what officials believe may be suspects in the attack, March 22, 2016.  REUTERS/CCTV
CCTV image from the Brussels Airport surveillance cameras shows what officials believe may be suspects in the attack, March 22, 2016.

Returning fighters pose a bigger threat

As a respond to ISIS threat towards Europe and in response to rapid territorial gains made by its militants, the European countries took part in a coalition led by the US aiming at breaking ISIS dominance in the region and ending its threat.

The coalition was able to deal massive blows to the group. In the past weeks, the battle was started in Mosul city, one of ISIS strongholds in Iraq.

However, analysts say this battle will have more negative efffects on Europe as many ISIS fighters will flee the area and return to their homelands and plan new attacks there.

Belgian Interior Minister Jan Jambon estimates between 3,000 and 5,000 surviving Europeans among Islamic State’s dwindling ranks, and many of them are going to return.

“Islamic State  is under pressure in Mosul and Raqqa. Belgian fighters are helping defend the strongholds, but we must be aware that there are not only 200 of our countrymen there, but between 3,000 and 5,000 Europeans,” Jambon told state broadcaster RTBF.

“All the intelligence agencies are trying to monitor the situation and exchange information. If the wave comes, we must be ready.”

Sir Julian King, a British diplomat and the newly-appointed EU Commissioner for the Security Union, said in an interview with Die Welt that Islamists can easily make it into Europe, even with fake IDs.

“Re-taking the Islamic State stronghold in northern Iraq can lead to a scenario in which violent militants would return to Europe,” he told the newspaper. “This is a very serious threat and we must be prepared to face it.”

Though a mass exodus of IS militants to Europe after the fall of Mosul is unlikely, the threat should not be underestimated as “even a small number of them is still a considerable threat,” he stressed.